What is a severed spinal cord?

A severed spinal cord is a break in the network of nerve cells in the spinal column. The spinal cord is a spongy white substance enclosed within the hollow vertebrae and discs of the spinal column. This cord can be severed due to a traumatic injury. If the spinal cord is severed, it can cause paralysis below the point of damage, which may be complete or partial, depending on the level of injury and the degree of damage to the cord.

The spinal cord is divided into segments that control different parts of the body. The upper segments regulate movement and sensation in the upper body, while the lower part sends signals to the lower body. A cord that is completely severed in one area causes total paralysis in the part of the body linked to that segment. If the spinal cord is partially severed, it may be possible to feel some movement. Injury to the specific section of the spinal cord that controls breathing can cause death.

Auto accidents account for about half of all severed spinal cord injuries. Sports mishaps, falls, and some illnesses can also cause permanent damage to the spinal cord. Over 75% of all severed spinal cord victims are young adult males. Accidents are often related to risky behaviors such as diving into shallow water, accidents without wearing a seat belt, and drinking while driving. Emergency workers responding to these accidents routinely strap patients to a backboard to prevent further damage whenever a spinal cord injury is suspected.

People with a severed spinal cord face a number of complications related to their inability to move. Deep vein thrombosis can occur from a lack of normal blood flow to parts of the body. The blood collects in the veins and can cause blood clots, pressure ulcers, joint problems, and urinary problems. Men who are paralyzed below the waist are usually unable to have intercourse, but a woman can still become pregnant and give birth to a healthy child under close medical supervision.

Spinal cord cells do not regenerate like cells in skin, blood, muscle, and other organs. When a spinal cord is completely severed, the damage is usually permanent. Patients require long-term rehabilitation to learn how to deal with the condition and gain as much functionality as possible. Clinical trials began in 2010 using embryonic stem cells to treat patients with a severed spinal cord after years of animal studies.

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